Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Tertullian, a highly educated Roman citizen and lawyer from Carthage in North Africa, converted to Christianity in 193 c.e. because he was so impressed by the behavior and faith shown by Christian martyrs. He was convinced that the one true religion was Christianity, not one of the various philosophical systems and cults then widely practiced in the Roman Empire. Tertullian thought that if he could explain the content of Christian belief to other educated non-Christian Romans, they would see the truth of Christianity, convert, and cease to persecute Christians. Tertullian, not a man of moderate temperament, offers a fiery defense of Christianity in his Apology. He not only advocates forcefully in favor of Christianity but also seeks to discredit traditional Roman polytheism and emperor worship, calling them nothing more than idolatry and baseless superstitions.
Apology, in the Latin sense of apologia, means to explain, which is what Tertullian does in his Apology. Speaking to Romans very similar to himself in culture and education, he explains why all the accusations of atheism, incest, and cannibalism against Christianity were ludicrous and why Christians should be thanked rather than persecuted for expounding the truth to their fellow citizens. He argues that Christianity was a benefit rather than a liability to the Roman Empire and that only bad emperors would persecute a good religion.
Tertullian was writing at the close of the second century c.e. when Christianity, though a fragile and discontinuous presence in the Roman Empire, had begun to come to the attention of Roman authorities who regarded it as just another unauthorized organization with potentially dangerous overtones. The authorities suppressed it as seditious and prosecuted members of the quasi-secret society for treason. They neither knew nor cared about Christianity as a belief system; it was not a recognized religion and therefore was banned.
Arguing like the lawyer he was, Tertullian...
(The entire section is 850 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Barnes, Timothy. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. In addition to a discussion of the important points of Tertullian’s theology, Barnes provides an in-depth presentation of Tertullian’s contribution to the development of a specifically Christian Latin.
Osborn, Eric. Tertullian: First Theologian of the West. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Osborn analyses the influence of Tertullian’s vocabulary and theology on later Latin Christian writers, despite the fact that Tertullian spent the last years of his life outside the mainstream Christian community.
Sider, Robert, ed. Christian and Pagan in the Roman Empire: The Witness of Tertullian. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 2001. This volume contains selections from many of Tertullian’s writings and serves as a good introduction to the range of topics on which Tertullian wrote.